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October 01, 2013 4:22 PM What If Voters Don’t Punish Extremism?

By Ed Kilgore

Totally aside from what happens in the government shutdown and debt limit battle in terms of winners and losers (like most rational observers, I figure the GOP will eventually have to give in and maybe snag some more concessions on sequestration and other straight-out funding issues), there’s a planted axiom in a lot of progressive analysis that we ought to think about a bit more deeply: that Republican extremism is doing serious damage to the Republican “brand.”

“Damage” from extremism requires that extremism is perceived by actual voters other than those already committed to the other party. Moreover, people rarely perceive their own party as extremist, and genuine independents are not only rare, but tend to be low-information voters who, to be blunt about it, miss a lot. Having recently read The Gamble, the John Sides/Lynn Vavreck book on the 2012 elections (my review of that and two other campaign books will appear in the next issue of the Washington Monthly), I am haunted by the book’s adamant and empirically supported (if by no means unrebuttable) argument that swing voters perceived Mitt Romney as being more moderate than Barack Obama—after Mitt’s endorsement of the Cut, Cap & Balance Pledge, the Ryan Budget, every abortion ban bill in sight, and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. This argument was part of a broader claim, which political scientists tend to embrace in varying degrees, that partisans will vote for their party’s candidates in almost any circumstance, and that the ever-shrinking ranks of swing voters are almost entirely controlled by perceptions of the economy and the incumbent’s credit or blame for the most recent trends.

Totally aside from the predictive or analytical value of this sort of perspective, it suggests that the age-old “median voter theory” that parties have a built-in self-deterrence against extremism is to a large extent a myth. In other words, if Ted Cruz gets the GOP nomination in 2016 and the economy’s terrible, there’s every reason to think he’ll win no matter how many hijinks he engages in between now and then.

I don’t buy it, but on the other hand, I think we should all pay close attention to the evidence at hand, particularly after the shutdown and debt default gambits. Today RCP’s Sean Trende makes a pretty good empirical case that memories of the damage Republicans did to themselves during the 1995 shutdown are significantly exaggerated. There are generally good reasons for CW and “myths” in politics, but they should always be tested for correspondence with objective reality, at least among those of us in the reality-based community. It may be that today’s radicalized conservative movement can only be beaten into submission by the kinds of progressive voter mobilization and messaging strategies—not to mention good government—that will require a lot more than waiting for the Right to discredit itself.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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